The right to basic services:
Water and sanitation in East Timor
Photo: Clara Muleya (second from left) with a Volunteer Health Team
in Liquicia province
Photos can be accessed at: http://www.caa.org.au/horizons/february_2001/timor.html
I trained in Romania, went back home and worked in Zambia, then came to Australia to do a Masters in Public Health at Melbourne University. I've always wanted to do some humanitarian work, and I've always been interested in preventative and community health. Zambia is also a developing country, and most of the health problems there are preventative rather than curative. My work there also included awareness-raising and hygeine promotion.
Don't communities have their own hygeine methods, appropriate to their culture and the way that they live?
Yes, hygeine has always existed, but it's about whether people's practices are detrimental to their health. If people have been going to the bush for centuries, why come in and tell them to build toilets? If they're burying their waste and it's not causing problems, then there's no reason to interfere. It might be good if everybody had a toilet, but then you start putting in water systems that the community can't support.
Sometimes people may know what they should do, but not the reasons behind it. We would say to communities: if you have dirty water from a river where people are defecating upstream, you can get diarrhea. But you can prevent those illnesses by simple methods like boiling water or hand washing. We were creating awareness about rubbish disposal practices, about how to improve water quality, as well as the role of water in the breeding of mosquitoes.
But surely there have always been mosquitoes breeding in still water in East Timor?
People have known there was some connection, but it's about sorting out truth from myth. Or sometimes there is inadequate knowledge, for example mothers not washing their hands after cleaning up their children, or people washing their eyes to avoid conjunctivitis.
Were communities comfortable talking about those issues publicly?
In Liquica I worked with a group of local people called community mobilisers. We trained them to go into the communities to try and change behaviours. As local people they understood what was culturally appropriate, and could address the issues in a sensitive way. It wasn't like some malai, some foreigner, coming to impose on them. In fact, centuries ago those practices were part of their culture. People told us, "After funerals everybody had to wash their hands, that was part of our culture." So it's about asking, "What is there in this culture that relates to what we're talking about now?"
How were those practices lost?
A lot of people link it to the occupations, especially by Indonesia. There was a lot of antagonism. If people were told to do things - even if it was a good practice - they resisted. If the government said, "It's cleanup day," they would resist. It became a struggle over everyday things. Or they would do things only if they were paid. Now they are working through all these issues, beginning to understand that they're finally free to make their own choices.
Photo: A young East Timorese using an Oxfam-installed water stand near Suai market. Photo by Terri Milligan.
Did you enjoy the time there?
It was fabulous. People received our program very well. Oxfam was given the task of trying to rehabilitate the water systems in Dili and the western districts after the crisis. They did a great job, got the water going in districts where the destruction was up to 95 percent - with a lot of help from the communities themselves - then handed it over to the government to maintain. They put in new transmission lines, water tanks and pipes, which they call the Oxfam snakes; polythene pipes snaking up the mountains.
How did it compare with working at home?
A lot of cultural aspects are very similar, which was very positive for the group. They're a new nation having to deal with a global economy, as Zambia has done for three decades. I told them that it's a very slow process, that they shouldn't expect change tomorrow. But they've done very well in a year. I think that as long as the political factioning doesn't take over their will to rebuild and make a nation for themselves, they will have themselves a great little paradise. I'm going back to Zambia now, but I'd love to visit East Timor again and see how they've progressed.